Feature: making the little prince
Trevor Hogg discovers how the much-loved children's classic The Little Prince was given its animated overhaul
How Kung Fu Panda’s Mark Osborne embraced this French classic
nce you’ve made one of the most-loved CG animated movies in recent years, what do you do next? For filmmaker Mark Osborne, you tackle one of the most wellloved children’s books of all time, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-exupéry… and you do it by mixing CG and stop motion. “Originally, I was asked to make the whole movie in CG,” explains American filmmaker Mark Osborne (Kung Fu Panda) when discussing the cinematic adaptation of The Little Prince. “I came back with the idea of using CG to tell a larger story and to have stop motion for the sequences from the book.” The contrasting animation techniques would represent the overriding theme that explores reality versus imagination and the differences between the worlds of adults and children.
“Guerilla Render is a lighting package that was a great solution because it gave us lighting properties for the CG that would match better with our stop motion lighting,” explains Mark. “They were so separate so we chose light and colour as the elements that were going to relate the two worlds.” Maya was the chosen software for the animation: “We didn’t have any proprietary software so it was the best way to be up and running the quickest,” he continues.
Mikros, based in Montreal, handled all of the CG scenes, including one of particular emotional significance. “We’re coming out of the sequence where The Little Prince decides to leave The Fox and to go back to his rose,” states Mark. “The Aviator is trying to make sure that The Little Girl understands this story as it will eventually help her to cope with the fact that he isn’t always going to be there for her. We were trying to create a supportive, emotional and nurturing environment for this pivotal relationship and moment between these two characters who need this bond to be strong.”
“We had a concept painting for this location and for the relationship between the Aviator and The Little Girl, which specifically came into play for this sequence,” recalls Mark. “Both storyboard artists who worked on it were animators so they brought a lot of subtly to the acting. It was clear, not only in the staging, but also in the hand-drawn panels.” Most of the adjustments that took place were with the setting. “The Aviator’s house is a cluttered location filled with a lot of materials and artefacts [inspired by travels of Antoine de Saint-exupéry]. The overall feeling that my production designer Céline Desrumaux was trying to create of the space was that of a cocoon, a very warm and safe place.”
“There’s one major light source and that was in the original concept painting,” states Mark. “The Aviator has a big window he is sitting in front of where all the light is filtering in through the trees in his backyard. It’s beautiful warm sunlight.”
The light also influenced the animation design, as Mark explains: “It was important for the environments, props and characters to be highly stylised so the realistic atmospheric lighting would not become ugly photoreal.”
We got to do a final camera pass with a hand-held camera, which gave an extra level of intimacy and feeling
Room to move
The number of assets that needed to be created had a real impact when selecting the various angles. “Whenever we made adjustments to the camera it would have an effect on the whole pipeline,” says Mark. “We got to do a final camera pass with a handheld camera, which gave an extra level of intimacy and feeling, so there’s a real human touch to that sequence. We have a static camera for The Little Girl when she is in the house. Whenever we are with the Aviator the camera floats, the lenses are wider, and there’s a feeling of lightness rather than rigidness.”
“Depth of field was used to help you stay centred on the characters because the location had so many details and it’s such a rich environment,” states Mark. “If everything was in focus it would be difficult to connect with the characters. I love using depth of field in CG as it feels more like a miniature as opposed to realistic live-action. It helped to create a sense of scale and being in a slightly surreal environment.” And atmosphere plays a big part in the imagery. “It’s one of the few sequences where we have volumetric lighting and dust particles in the air which gives another layer of believability.”
No motion capture was utilised by Mark. “The animators created a performance based on the nuances and subtleties heard in the voice of Jeff Bridges.” But the wise old man has a distinguishable physical trait. “The most difficult thing about the beard was getting the groom to look just right. If that beard is a little bit too dark the Aviator looks creepy and if it’s too bright and white he’ll look like Santa Claus. The beard was intended to appear soft and inviting. In regards to The Little Girl, we wanted her eyes to be big because it was evocative of a child,” he explains.
Keep it real
“We kept the motion of the characters realistic,” notes Mark. “Rarely do they move in a cartoony way. Especially in this sequence, it’s all about subtly so there’s not a lot of extreme motion.” Stationery plays a role in the colour palette. “The clearest visual aid to understand who the Aviator
is, is to think of a piece of paper that used to be white and is golden amber with age.” The hope was to create something that felt like a storybook. “The subtle tweaks of colour and subtle tweaks at the compositing level at the final stage were essential to the final look of the movie.”
“It was expensive to change anything in our pipeline,” recalls Mark. “It took a lot of guessing. It was great when all of the pieces came together and you could get to where you needed to get to.” The native of Trenton, New Jersey, is quick to acknowledge the contributions of CG animation supervisor Jason Boose, animation leads Marcandré Baron and Ludovic Roz, who perfected the Aviator as well as the collaboration between production designer Céline Desrumaux and CG lighting supervisor Adel Abada who brought life to home of the Aviator. “When I look at the original concept painting and at the final sequence, I feel like we achieved what we were looking for.”